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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Just an old peranakan shophouse!

A typical facade of a peranakan house

Just an old peranakan shophouse

A story recounted by Dheema Ariyapala

Eyes riveted on her face, we strained our ears to catch her every word.

We were standing in the open courtyard of a peranakan shophouse at Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock ( formerly Heeren Street ), in Melaka, listening intently to the  tour guide as she explained to us about the main function of the courtyard.

Earlier, my husband, daughter and I had visited some of the well- known historical sites in Melaka. After walking for hours in the mid-afternoon sun, the house provided a welcome shade from the heat of the scorching sun. The tourists who had come to view and learn something about the peranakan culture were divided into two groups and each group was provided with a resident tour  guide.

Our group had already being guided around the richly furnished reception hall ( thia beseh ).  The dim light revealed ornately carved rosewood chairs and side tables with inlaid mother-of-pearls lining both sides of the hall while a round marble top table ( tok bulat ) with wooden chairs occupied the centre of the hall.  A closer examination of the wooden ceiling, directly above the table, revealed a coin-sized peep hole. In the old days, we were told, the marriageable nyonyas would  peer through this peep hole to catch a glimpse of their prospective suitors.

Now, as we stood in the courtyard, the guide told us the courtyard and the adjoining kitchen was the heart of a peranakan house. It was the place where the bibiks and nyonyas would congregate and over cups( changkay) of Chinese tea, regularly topped up from a porcelain teapot( tekko), they would chat and gossip until it was time to prepare lunch or dinner. In its halcyon days, during festive occasions, the place would be a hive of activity as the hired cook (chung po) assisted by the bibiks and nuonyas worked with feverish haste to whip up delectable peranakan dishes such as pongteh, itik tim, ayam buah keluak, chap chai, etc . The wide selection of food would be laid out meticlously on a long table ( tok panjang ); a feast for the eyes and palate. As I listened to her explanation, the past seemed to come alive again. I could hear the rhythmic pounding of pestles and mortars( lesong batu} that mingled with the grating sound of stone grinders( batu giling) as ingredients and spices were pounded or ground into fine paste. The cacophony of sounds blended with the incessant chatters and friendly banters of the bibiks and nyonyas. A playful nyonya would suddenly jab a finger at the rib of a bibik susceptible to melatah and a stream of unintelligible words would pour forth from her mouth: Oh, poh chok….oh, mak lu….which were followed with laughter and giggle to add further merriment to the festive air.

 A flicker of movement caught the corner of my eyes and as I looked up, I noticed a man leaning against an open louvered window on the upper floor overlooking the courtyard. His arm rested on the window sill and part of his loose sleeves spilled over the edge of the sill.

The dazzling mid-afternoon sunlight streaming through the open skylight was so revealing that I could take in the detail of his features. His face was plastered with a thick coat of white foundation with dark red colour round the eyes that faded down the cheeks. His eyebrows were painted black while his well-greased hair, tautly pulled back, accentuated the slant in his eyebrows and gave him an air of authority. He must have caught me stealing a glance at him for he seemed to be slightly taken aback. Then as our eyes locked momentarily, I could see the look of displeasure reflected in his cold, piercing eyes. I assumed he was a dondang sayang performer who was in the midst of putting his make-up and he was obviously annoyed, as our arrival ahead of schedule had interrupted his preparation. I quickly averted his angry eyes and lowered my gaze towards the ground.

When our guide finally announced that we were going to view the upper floor, I felt a tinge of excitement at the thought of viewing the dondang sayang presentation. As we followed doggedly behind the footsteps of our guide, I edged closer to her and noticing the rather narrow, wooden staircase leading to the upper floor I asked her if it would be better if we waited for the other group to come down first.  Taken by surprise, my question was met with stony silence, and a puzzled look creased her brows.

When we entered the room on the upper floor, I was surprised to find it was vacant. Except, for our group members, not a soul was in sight. There were no audience; no performers. I felt a bit disappointed at not being able to see the dondang sayang performance that day, but busy with other activities it was soon forgotten.

Then back in the silence and comfort of my own house I began to reflect on our visit to the peranakan house and it suddenly dawned on me,  the 'dondang sayang performer' had not taken the stairs;  the only stairway to the upper floor. He had literally disappeared into thin air. 

Recently, I took a trip to Melaka to see my friend, Anita and meet her parents who wanted to hear the stories about my strange dreams and encounters. When I related my visit to the peranakan house and my encounter with the 'dondang sayang' performer, I was told  my description of the man I had seen  did not fit well with that of a dondang sayang singer and he was most probably a Chinese opera performer. Their observations raised more interesting questions. What was an opera performer doing in a peranakan house. Was he the occupant of the house or engaged by a rich peranakan family to perform for them.

The next time, if I walk along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock and happen to look at a familiar shophouse, I will not think of it as 'just another peranakan shophouse'. The calm and innocent facade may still harbour an invisible presence. 

Shophouses along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock

Another view of shophouses along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock

NOTES: The photos in the article are merely for embellishment and do not
                have any connection with the story.

Dondang Sayang _Baba William Tan (1989 )